Hi, friends. I’ve been trying to find the author of a quote that my old 20th-century American Lit professor referenced frequently; it states that art makes sense of and gives meaning to life. In my search, I stumbled across a William Faulkner interview with great quotes about writing. He uses “Kilroy was here” in a comparison at one point, and I thought it’d be fun to share the quote and explain what he’s implying with that reference.
William Faulkner (1897-1962) lived in Oxford, Mississippi. He’s best known for novels like As I Lay Dying and The Sound And the Fury, written in an experimental stream-of-consciousness narrative form with shifting narrators. [Basically, he was extremely modernist.] He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novels A Fable and The Reivers. His father was an entrepreneur and an outdoors man who supported his family well, but the women in Faulkner’s life strongly influenced his artistic imagination. His mother taught him to read classic authors like Dickens before he attended public school, and his having a black nanny from infancy is reflected in the racial and sexual themes of his novels. He excelled in younger years but only attended Ole Miss 1919-1920 before dropping out of college. He began writing in college and eventually turned it into a career.
The Paris Review, launched in 1953, interviews authors and has given readers profound insight into thoughts from their favorite writers. Here’s a post with the full interview, but in the interest of succinctness, I include the quote with “Kilroy was here” along with a quote that adds context to that reference:
The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.
If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.
“Kilroy Was Here”
“Kilroy was here” is an American pop culture icon that popularized during World War II. It doesn’t represent anything in particular; it was simply a funny doodle that popped up in random places.
I included the first Faulkner quote because of its poignancy in describing a book like a little vacuum of its own life/motion that stops and starts on command. I included the second quote to expose Faulkner’s views on art and authorship and connect it with his “Kilroy was here” analogy in the first quote. In the same way the Kilroy doodle is universal because it means anything and nothing simultaneously, the human experience varies so widely though we all have it. Just as anyone could deface an object with “Kilroy was here,” anyone might write a book, and what a literary work says about people/society broadly is more significant than one author’s idea if we grant that every “idea” has probably already existed (according to Faulkner).
Thanks for reading! Do you agree or disagree that the importance of works supersedes the significance of their authors? Is a work’s icon status a factor in that?